This month marks the 109th birthday of the celebrated Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian. One of the most exciting musical ensembles in Armenia today is the Khachaturian Trio, a collective named after the late Armenian maestro. The trio consists of three distinguished musicians: the violinist Karen Shahgaldyan, pianist Armine Grigoryan, and cellist Karen Kocharyan. Shahgaldyan is the only one of the trio not native to Armenia, but he, like his fellow musicians Grigoryan and Kocharyan, teaches masterclasses throughout the country. Nicholas Maltby spoke to Karen Shahgaldyan about the formation of the trio, the value of the heritage of classical music in Armenia, and music of Aram Khachaturian.
The name of the Khachaturian trio is inspired by the Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian? Why is Khachaturian so important to you? Who suggested his name from the trio?
It’s hard to say anything definitive about Khachaturian because for every Armenian musician he is a man who changed – it’s even possible to say that he found the road – for an Armenian classical music. Before him, Armenian music was mostly in churches or in the form of folk music. After him, within less than a century, Armenian music jumped from the Middle Ages to the latest modern ideas. He also changed, or even, formed, the minds of composers and musicians by bringing in the European way, but at the same time maintaining a powerful Eastern influence. So, of course, for us it’s a great honour to be named after him, and we are glad that his son, Karen, permitted us use the name. Also, a big friend of our ensemble and a member of the trustees of our “Classical Music Development Foundation” is Mr. Assadour Guzelian, who lives in London. He was also inspired by the idea of us using Khachaturian’s name. So, overall, it was collective decision!
You are from Moscow but you have toured broadly. What is distinctive about the musical culture in Eastern Europe? Why has it produced many great musicians and composers?
That’s a pretty tough question. I’m not ready to say that this or that country is more talented. Great musicians have come from everywhere. But trying to analyze Russia, for example, I think, maybe, that great energy of will – to know as much as is possible and to open new windows – which was promoted by tsar Peter the Great – this energy is still working. It’s very important to improve, and Russian culture for the last few centuries was like a non-sleeping volcano: always hot and boiling. A lot of European musicians and people of culture came to Russia and founded later national schools, for example, Leopold Auer, who gave us several generations of great violinists and a famous Russian school. Most of his pupils went to the USA and Europe and continued his work, conquering the musical world.
Also, to talk about the Soviet period – culture was a part of the ideology, and whilst there were a lot of bad things from that period, a good thing was that the country, or the government, was like a very powerful producer for musicians (although not for everyone, of course) and it helped Russian musicians to become some of the finest in the world.
What place does Armenia have within that tradition?
Armenia has a great history in this area, but it doesn’t go as far back. For a very short period, the Armenian violin school and cello school improved things a lot, producing great virtuosos and teachers. By the way, one of the Auer’s pupils, Ivan Galamian, became one of the main American teachers, who helped produce a lot of great violinists.
What is the place of classical music in Armenia today?
Now, of course, the situation is pretty complicated. There was the awful earthquake in 1988, the end of the Soviet era, and the formation of a new country; then there was war, several years without energy and light – so because of all this, several generations were lost, a lot of wonderful musicians left Armenia. So that road, which was started by Khachaturian, is not so wide and straight now. The education system, concert management, and the place of classical music itself, is not in a good shape. Our foundation has several programs trying to help with these matters, and we are trying to do a lot of things; but, in general, it’s work that should be conducted as part of a big governmental program.
How much time do you spend in Armenia and what commitments keep you there?
Over the last five years, every year I’ve spent at least 5-6 months in Armenia. Of course, the main reason is my partners from the Khachaturian Trio: they are brilliant musicians and I am happy to play with them because we have the rare chance in our time to really think about music, and to produce it for an audience. The other reason for my being in Armenia is our foundation (cmdfarmenia.com), because now we are responsible for all those boys and girls who we give a musical start to. It’s pretty tough work, but we understand that if we don’t do something like this now, tomorrow will be much worse.
What is your favourite piece by Aram Khachaturian?
Of course, I am not objective, but a violin concerto! Adagio from “Spartacus” is one of the greatest melodies ever heard. But it’s interesting that his chamber music is almost unknown. We have a plan to record a CD of his chamber works next year, when we will celebrate his 110th birthday.
You speak warmly of Russian classical music audiences. What is unique about them?
Russian and Armenian audiences, in my opinion, are more spontaneous; they react to things immediately. That is why it’s always a very interesting experience to play here.
Why is the Great Russian Music School valuable to you on a professional level? Does it help to feel that you are part of a rich tradition?
I like traditions a lot: the energy of places and instruments is very important for me. So, of course, I feel all the great history of Russian culture around me: it helps. I am always trying to research the past, and, to know more from it for the future. Why it is valuable for me? I think because it still works!
Are you ever tempted to move out of Eastern Europe?
Since childhood I’ve had several opportunities to move abroad. I enjoy traveling a lot. One of the greatest things for me is to see something new and to meet people. I adore European culture. But for me it is very important to live in my cultural circle, where I grew up.
You trained with the highly-regarded Victor Tretiakov? How instrumental was he in making you a world-class violinist?
I knew his recordings from the age of five; it was a real dream when I entered his class in Moscow Conservatoire. First of all, he is a great artist; and his artistic experience, and his presence in my life were of equal importance to his technical advice. I’m still charged by his musical energy and ideas. At the same time, I was lucky not to be smashed by his great individuality because it’s very important to store your own voice.
Your grandfather was a distinguished composer. Do you compose your own works? Why/why not?
No, I do not compose. It’s a pity because it’s a great talent; but I haven’t it. Also, I am sure that everybody should, professionally, only do things he/she is good at. My mother thinks that I can compose very well but I don’t believe her.
What creates talent?
Parents, God, people you meet. And then you have to manage experiences in the right way.
It was Aram Khachaturian’s birthday yesterday. How did you celebrate it? If you could play any non- Khachaturian piece in his honour, what would it be and why?
It was a sunny and joyful day. A lot of people came in the morning to the Pantheon, where the maestro is buried. The 8th Khachaturian International Music competition was open, with the very talented young conductor, Sergey Smbatyan, leading the State Youth Armenian symphony orchestra.
To talk about music that I would play for the maestro – I don’t know what would suit him if it’s not his own music; so a better thing, I think, would be to read something from another outstanding person who was born same day, but in a different year – of course I mean the great Russian poet, Alexandr Pushkin.